After the 2-year synod process with bishops from around the world reflecting on the issues families face today, on April 8, 2016, Pope Francis issued Amoris Laetitia (AL) translated The Joy of Love, his post-synodal guidance in the form of an apostolic exhortation.  

The sometimes turbulent synodal process initially struck a surprisingly welcoming tone with the 2014 mid-term report, but then largely fell back into familiar territory subduing the texts that were deemed dangerous by conservative bishops. Still, there was progress notably:

·      Francis’s encouragement to speak freely and openly during the synod.

·      His re-organization of bishops and auditors into small groups for the 2015 synod.

·      The bold interventions by women auditors and bishops such as Paul Andre-Durocher.

·      The unanimous proposal of the German bishops that  brokered a way for communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

·      The opening of the synod door to non-ordained voters with the participation of Brother Herve Janson, P.F.J. the prior general of the Little Brothers of Jesus (Foucauld).

·      Francis’s skill in building the consensus he needed to write AL.

Thus, given Pope Francis’s desire for open dialogue and his respect for the discernment process, it is appropriate to ask: Is The Joy of Love good news?  

It depends on whom you ask, but most Catholics were disappointed. On the one hand, many rightly hoped for greater progress in terms of the Church’s welcoming, inclusive language and posture. The mid-term document raised hopes that this could happen, but those hopes were quashed with the swift pull back by conservative bishops. On the other hand, there was a fierce distancing from AL from many ultra-conservative Catholics who believed that Francis had gone too far and betrayed Catholic teaching.  


Where to Find the Good News

Decision-making processes need to be reformed so that they are truly inclusive of the laity. But given the process we have, improvements were visible. For decades, many prelates put their finger to the papal wind to determine how they viewed an issue. Going against the magisterial grain elicited a vulnerability that few wanted to risk. But Francis began coaxing his brothers toward a healthier model. He encouraged open, honest and respectful dialogue ending an era of artificially secured assent to papal prescriptions. Amoris Laetitia is the end product of his decisive action to prioritize the authority of bishops and to decentralize decision making.  

Just as importantly, Francis skillfully found a way to bring widely divergent, geographically and culturally diverse positions intoconsensus. The German “miracle” that saw Cardinal Gerhard Mueller and Cardinal Walter Kasper come together for unanimous agreement on the internal forum is one example. The two-year process culminated in the 2015 Relatio Finalis in which all 94 paragraphs in the document passed with a majority of votes.  

Finally, no one could mistake Francis’s desire to bring the Church leaders out of the Benedict era of a smaller, purer Church to a big tent, messy, field hospital Church. The three most controversial paragraphs from the Relatio Finalis (84, 85, 86) that focused on discernment, conscience and the integration of Catholics in “irregular” unions were incorporated extensively throughout AL. Francis clearly wants pastors to do less fingerwagging and to engage more fully in the messy business of loving authentically and integrating all Catholics fully into the life of the Church.  

Thus, there is good news in Amoris Laetitia. Its message has been called “a profound shift in emphasis.” Central to interpreting the document is Francis’s introductory disclaimer, “I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” Thus Francis shows his confidence that the People of God are equipped to muddle through the difficulties of life and find grace in those moments.

A quick summary what is constructive and healing in AL includes: 

1.  Love Rules over Rules

Pope Francis seeks to move all Catholics, but especially Catholic leaders, from their comfort zone where strict adherence to objective moral truths gives way to a more authentic and humble pastoral engagement. The framework for judging the morality of acts has been law-oriented and deductive. Francis re-prioritizes that legalistic framework in favor of relational model based on authentic respect, deep listening, trust and accompaniment.    

Over and over, he implores his fellow Churchmen, -- especially those who seek safety in the rules-- to open themselves to this new framework saying, “The true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit.”

2.  Conscience is Primary

AL creates a generous, central place for the role of conscience in Catholic life.  While the teaching about the primacy of conscience has long been a part of Catholic life, it is core for deconstructing some of the walls that have been built around the altar and a key theme in AL.  

3.  The Internal Forum Expanded

Related to the role of conscience is the internal forum. AL specifies that the internal forum can be invoked on a case by case basis. While the internal forum has been around, in 1994, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explicitly ruled it out as a pathway for the divorced and civilly remarried to return to Communion. AL opens the door where it had been closed. Throughout the document, AL clearly seeks to reset Catholic attitudes toward divorced and remarried Catholic and others who live in “irregular” unions. That reset is most clearly seen in paragraph 301 where it states, “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.”  Francis goes further by rejecting the notion that Catholics in second marriages should refrain from sexual intimacy and live as “brothers and sisters” as has been the requirement (See footnote 329).

Finally, footnote 351 reorients Catholic thinking about the purpose of Eucharist. It is not a tool for creating separation, but for healing and nourishment. As Francis notes, the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”  

4. Leaving Aside Words That Cast Shame

Descriptors that were in vogue at one time are dropped in AL. “Intrinsically disordered” is not used to describe LGBTQI Catholics and the term adultery is not used to describe the state of Catholics in second marriages.


The Critics

Al contains much good news. Still, it is clear that Francis has his critics who perceive Al as a threat. The criticism comes from the usual suspects and some new ones.

In July, a group of professors and other Church officials sent a letter to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals , and more than 200 other cardinals and patriarchs asking them to “respond to the dangers of Catholic faith and morals” in AL. The signers ask the cardinals to petition Pope Francis to “condemn the errors.”  

Cardinal Raymond Burke has been using his energy in an attempt to downgrade portions of AL from a magisterial teaching to Francis’s “personal reflections.” The self-appointed monitor differentiates between, “those parts which support and give full expression to the Church's magisterium” and those he deems as “the reflections of the Holy Father” which “are not magisterium.”* As you will see below, Francis has gone on the offensive regarding this charge.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the US prelates who attended the 2014 and 2015 Family Synod, reads AL to support his doctrinaire viewpoint. With great sophistication, his Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, skillfully weaves together passages from AL that refer to the need for mercy while citing, more vaguely,“Catholic teaching” to refute key themes of AL. For instance, Archbishop Chaput ignores Pope Francis’s clear departure fromBenedict’s insistence that Catholics in second marriages that are not nullified should refrain from sexual intimacy.  According to the AL footnote 329, “faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffer if certain expressions of intimacy” are lacking when divorced and remarried Catholics live together “as brothers and sisters.”  But Chaput ignores Francis’s lead and reiterates what has been the practice --writing, "Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly remarried to receive reconciliation in the sacrament of penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist."

Sadly, for US Catholics who long for a more inclusive Church, the archbishop was appointed by USCCB president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, to head the ad hoc committee charged with making AL accessible and understandable. For Chaput, abiding by objective moral truths may be hard but it is the way of mercy. Separation is necessary. Shame is inevitable.  The Eucharist is not nourishment but a prize.

Francis and Allies Counter Critics

Pope Francis has been countering attempts to minimize AL or distort its message, especially onslaughts from Cardinal Raymond Burke.

Immediately after the release, Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Cardinal Oswald Gracias and Cardinal Walter Kasper gave glowing reviews of AL. More recently, allies such as Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, Cardinal Walter Kasper, Rocco Buttiglione and Rodrigo Guerra López have countered frontal assaults by critics such as Cardinal Raymond Burke.  

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the man credited with building consensus among polar opposites (C.Mueller and C. Kasper) in the German language group in order to propose the internal forum for divorced and remarried Catholics, has been at the forefront defending Pope Francis’s authority and pastoral intent in AL. Defending the Pope’s teaching authority against efforts to marginalize the message, he stressed, “This is an act of themagisterium.” Further, rebutting interpretations of AL that strip it of its pastoral innovation, he carefully illustrates how Pope Francis’s teaching is an evolution of Pope John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio.  

In Schoenborn’s analysis, “John Paul II presupposes implicitly that one cannot simply say that every situation of a divorced and remarried person is the equivalent of a life in mortal sin that is separated from the communion of love between Christ and the Church. Accordingly, he was opening the door to a broader understanding, through discernment.” 

Schoenborn relates that to the urgency of today’s societies saying, “To a greater degree than in the past, the objective situation of a person does not tell us everything about that person in relation to God and in relation to the Church. This evolution compels us to rethink what we meant when we spoke of objective situations of sin. And this implicitly entails a homogenous evolution in the understanding and in the expression of the doctrine.. . .” 

Brilliantly, Schoenborn demonstrates that in AL, Francis is simply expressing more fully what John Paul II began by “obliging us to clarify something that had remained implicit in Familiaris Consortio, about the link between the objectivity of a situation of sin and the life of grace in relation to God and to his Church, and – as a logical consequence – about the concrete imputablity of sin.”

In July, historian Rocco Buttiglione wrote an article for the Vatican newspaper L’OsservatoreRomano, illustrating how Francis’s “creative fidelity” falls in line with the thinking of other popes. 

Later in the month, Rodrigo Guerra López, a philosopher at the Center for Advanced Social Research in Queretaro, Mexico, refuted Burke’s assertions at length stating, “Amoris Laetitia is a true act of pontifical teaching. It is very imprudent, in addition to being theologically inexact, to insinuate that this apostolic exhortation is a kind of personal opinion, almost private.” Lopez also defended AL from critics, writing that the “organic development” was “an example of the hermeneutic of reform in continuity mentioned by Pope Benedict in his 2005 address to the Roman Curia, and not an example of rupture with previous teaching.” 

On August 23rd, Fr. Salvador Pie-Ninot, a well-known professor of ecclesiology, said AL meets all the criteria for being an example of the "ordinary magisterium" to which all members of the church should respond with "the basic attitude of sincere acceptance and practical implementation." 

While Amoris Laetitia did not go far enough in creating a more inclusive church, it did re-orient Catholics, after a long period of Vatican II retrenchment, toward a more vibrant understanding of discernment, the primacy of conscience, the internal forum and accompaniment. It opened important new doors that ultra conservative Catholics are decrying. On the positive side, Catholics who long for a more inclusive integrated church like Cardinal Kasper will find support in AL. Those like Archbishop Chaput will ignore this magisterial teaching in favor of previous popes and sadly, continue to perpetuate the hurt that has plagued our church for so long.   

What Francis began more than two years ago will continue to evolve. He will continue to reinforce his message asking all Catholics, but especially those who are ordained, to recognize that life is not black and white and that “the Church needs to grow in the ability of spiritual discernment.”